08 December 2014

Food Lab 31: Mexi-Test

Your core Food Lab team has an annual swap agreement. The Executive Committee and Mad Kitchen Scientist throw a big annual New Year's Eve party, and Chef Spouse and I go over early in the day to help cook. Chef Spouse and I throw a big annual Super Bowl party, and The Executive Committee and Mad Kitchen Scientists come over early to help cook.

The Super Bowl party is always Tex-Mex because it seems appropriate, it's easy to make for a crowd that may include some vegetarians and/or gluten-free folks, and because Chef Spouse makes rockin' guacamole and fajitas.

The New Year's Eve soiree has a different food theme every yea, but the same requirements: finger food that can be served cold or at room temperature.

This year, Chef Spouse and I will be on vacation until the day before the Super Bowl, so The Executive Committee and Mad Kitchen Scientist have graciously agreed to do the shopping and day before prep work for our Super Bowl party. Given that, the theme for New Year's Eve seemed obvious: Mexican street food. Which we decided to pre-lab this weekend, rather than just jumping in with both feet and hoping for the best day of (I think our biggest risk ever was the sushi New Year's Eve, which happened WELL before our sushi lab this summer).

So for Food Lab: Mexi-test we chose a variety of dips in preparation for New Year's Eve and chiles rellenos and jalapeno poppers in prep for the Super Bowl. Chef Spouse had to miss due to work commitments, but fortunately we had two more hands in one of Mad Kitchen Scientist's colleagues and her spouse, blog nicknames pending.

We started with a Mexican cheese taste off:
  • Two types of Queso Blanco
  • Two types of Queso Fresca
  • Cuajada Casera (which is fermented)
  • Queso Seco (which is queso blanco with more water removed)
  • Two types of crema - Mexican, which was thinner and more subtly flavored, and Guatemalan, which was thicker and funkier

Conclusion: most of the flavors were pretty mild, but they were all VERY salty.

Our dip plans included:
  • queso with chorizo
  • pumpkin seed dip (from Diana Kennedy)
  • duck confit green chile 
  • haute seven-layer dip (which involved making guacamole, refried beans, two varieties of salsa, and two spiced cremas all from scratch)
The queso was simple. Pop two sausages out of their skins and brown in a cast iron skillet (that bit's key). Deglaze with a little tequila (flambe optional but recommended), then melt in a combo of queso fresca and blanco, and add a little turkey stock to help the fats from the chorizo and the cheeses emulsify. Simple and delicious.

The pumpkin seed dip (sikil pak) was a Diana Kennedy recipe.

1 cup unhulled raw pumpkin seeds
1/4 c hulled raw pumpkin seeds
1.5 tsp salt

Roast unhulled in a cast iron skillet until brown and toasty - add hulled and roast for one more minute, then coarse grind them and add the salt.

(Diana said all coarse grind, but on reflection, we thought it should've been half coarse, half fine - and 1.5 tsp. salt was a little too much)

Roast two whole tomatoes (skins, seeds, and all) and one jalapeno (same) under the broiler

Stick blend the tomatoes with1/3 - 2/3 c water

Fine chop the roasted jalapeno
Rough chop 2 Tbsp cilantro
Fine chop 2 Tbsp chives

Mix it all together and eat

We removed the jalapeno seeds post-roasting, and we probably should have left some in, because it could've been a little spicier, although it did get more spicy over time. But: delicious, and will definitely repeat for New Year's.

Duck confit green chile was an adaptation of a pork green chile Mad Kitchen Scientist usually makes.

In olive oil, saute:

3 cloves garlic, finely minced
3/4 a small onion, finely chopped
3 oz duck confit
1 tsp cumin seeds
two chopped jalapenos (one seeded and deveined, one whole)
1 1/2 chopped poblanos

Deglaze with brandy

Simmer w 3/4 c duck stock until the peppers are soft

Add some cilantro and stick blend

Then last 1/2 of poblano finely chopped, 1/4 small onion minced fine, 1 seeded and deveined jalapeno minced fine, 3 oz duck confit, two small chopped tomatillos and simmer until cooked through

It also ended up less spicy than ideal, but fortunately the Nicknames Pending had brought along homemade habanero pepper sauce, so we were able to jazz it up.

In prep for the seven-layer dip, Mad Kitchen made refried beans, The Executive Committee made guacamole, I made a simple salsa verde and pico de gallo, and Nicknames Pending made two varieties of crema, one based on regular sour cream the other on the Guatemalan crema.

Both had
  • Cayenne
  • Smoked paprika
  • Cumin
  • Coriander
  • Onion powder 
All to taste, and we tested chipotle with more cayenne versus ancho with less. I liked the hotter one (of course), and the ancho was notably more smoky.

Then we put two varieties together:

Refried beans
Spicy crema v. smoky crema
Pico de gallo v. salsa verde
Queso fresca
Chopped olives and green onions

Again, of course I preferred the spicy.

The only fail of the day was the poppers and rellenos. We labbed roasting the peppers first versus going raw. Some were filled with just a cheese mix (basically a combo of everything we had left), some were filled with the rest of the chorizo queso dip. Then we egg-washed, breaded with a combo of masa and flour, dried, and deep fried.

Basically all of them - roasted and raw - turned out too spicy for everyone, and the breading did not adhere AT ALL to the raw peppers. If we're going to do them for the Super Bowl, this is going to require at least one more test, but probably not for New Year's, because you really have to eat both of them hot.

What did we drink?

Duh. Margaritas.

Mad Kitchen Scientist had made a mango shrub with pineapple vinegar and palm sugar, so that featured prominently, as did the Herrandura reposado tequila and habanero sauce Nicknames Pending brought.


10 November 2014

Food Lab 30: Chicken

In which the Food Lab Crew attempts to convince your humble correspondent that I am wrong.

I've long agreed with Anthony Bourdain on the subject of chicken: it's what people order when they don't know what they want.

Don't get me wrong. I have no objection to curry chicken stir fry, or Indian butter chicken, or a spicy, complex chicken mole. The thing is, those dishes are not about the chicken - the chicken is the blank slate protein on which the delicious sauce is crafted.

And don't even get me started on the current popular abomination that is the boneless, skinless chicken breast. That, to reference another of this weekend's activities, is definitely NOT "good eats," despite the fact that I spot so many in people's carts at the grocery store. What is wrong with you people?

So I am not really a chicken eater - pretty much EVERY other animal protein tastes SO much better, why would I bother?

Do you spot the problem?

No chicken = no chicken bones = no homemade chicken stock.

Now chicken stock, on the other hand, is incredibly useful as a soup base, for risotto, for pan sauces, for reheating items, or to boost the flavor of your rice or quinoa or barley. And while commercial chicken stock is not nearly as dreadful as, say, commercial beef stock (OH MY GOD NEVER EVER USE THAT FOR ANY REASON I AM NOT KIDDING), it definitely pales in comparison to a good, homemade chicken stock.

Also, pate. You need whole chickens to get the livers to make pate.

So Chef Spouse and The Executive Committee laid out the challenge: prove me wrong on chicken. No tricks, no ethnic spicing, no fancy sauces. Chicken that, pace Julia Child, tastes of the chicken and nothing else, and IS good eats.

So Chef Spouse procured five birds from the poultry guys at Eastern Market, and the Labbers, plus the Eggman and a VERY pregnant Die Künstlerwranglerin, assembled to make them good to eat.

But first! Pate!

As you may recall, we've already labbed pate, but Chef Spouse still has not been 100% satisfied with his. The taste has been fine, once we realized that simpler is better - a little allium, salt and pepper, cognac, a SMALL amount of juniper and/or allspice - but the texture has not been pleasing to him. Too dense/stiff. He decided that this weekend was the time to fix that. The key? Obvious and simple (but not easy): some heavy cream and a tamis. Adding heavy cream lightens up all that liver. Pressing all the pate through the tamis takes time and you do lose some product, but the difference in the texture is dramatic. Totally worth it.

OK, on to the chickens.

The Executive Committee had gone to the source - Mastering the Art of French Cooking - and chosen four methods for us: two oven (roasted and roasted casserole style in a Dutch oven) and two stove top (saute and fricassee). Since Chef Spouse had purchased FIVE chickens, we opted to add a brined, butterflied roast chicken to the mix.

The process for cooking chickens is relatively simple. You want to get your Maillard Reaction going, and you need some aromatics, and you need to baste. Which is pretty much what we did - the oven varieties got basted with butter and turned regularly, the fricassee followed Julia to the letter, and the saute got a nice even browning and then some quality time with some leeks, carrots, and celery.

There were several vaguely obscene moments, including comments about "bondage-ing" and the apropos arrival of Dinah Washington singing "I've Got You Under My Skin."

Bondage chicken

In the meantime, cocktails. This ended up being the summer of shrubs for us, so we decided to play around with various shrub-tails.

What is a shrub?

It's a Colonial era method of preserving fruit that involves the fruit, vinegar, and sugar. Shrubs have recently enjoyed a renaissance in cocktail culture, and the Washington Post food section did an article on them early this summer that proved to be excellent timing, as we made a large variety over the ensuing months to help us deal with the bounty of the CSA and the garden. They're excellent taken neat, as a base for a vinaigrette, with club soda, or, of course, in cocktails.

We've done several "fun with garden produce" evenings with the Food Labbers and Food Lab visitors over the past several months (all of which were good fun and good eating, but none of which amounted to a full lab) that featured various incarnations of shrub-tails, but this was the first time we included them as part of a full lab.

In the traditional 3-1-1/4 (or so) cocktail ratio, we experimented with:
  • Mad Kitchen Scientist's latest batch of kitchen gin - lemon bay shrub - limoncello
  • Silver tequila - pineapple/pineapple sage shrub - orange bitters
  • Mount Gay rum - pineapple/pineapple sage shrub - Angostura bitters
  • Vodka - Thai basil/ginger shrub - ginger liquer
  • Rye whiskey - Thai basil/ginger shrub - absinthe (dubbed The Shruberac)
  • Kitchen gin - pomegranate shrub - rhubarb bitters
We also did a 1-1 with the rye, orange/fennel shrub, and whiskey barrel bitters, and a 1-2-3 mix of amaretto, peach/ginger shrub, and Mouth Gay rum with a little Angostura bitters. (Hey, we had plenty of time while we waited for all the chickens to be done.)

And no, we didn't use all the shrubs we have - the cucumber, strawberry balsamic, cherry, mixed berry, and watermelon mint varieties never made it out of the fridge. Told you it was the summer of shrubs.

They were all quite good, although I must admit that I favored to two rye-based drinks, probably followed by the rum-based options. 

In the end, despite The Executive Committee's observation that "two delights make an epiphany," I remain unconvinced on the merits of chicken. All of the chicken varieties were totally edible and even tasty. The only one that was better than the decadent mashed potatoes Chef Spouse made to go on the side, however, was the saute:

And that was mostly due to the excellently crispy skin and the sauce.


Chef Spouse made six quarts of really excellent chicken stock with the bones, trimmings, and veg slag, so he's happy.

And while I'll eat chicken if presented with it, Chef Spouse just needs to get in a regular cycle of buying bones (and containers of chicken livers) from the Eastern Market poultry guys like he does with the butcher and his veal bones. Because I'm never going to eat enough to keep up with the demand for stock around here when there's duck, pork, lamb, beef, fish, shellfish, game birds, venison, etc. in the world.

23 June 2014

Food Lab 29: Sushi

The inspiration for this Lab was the terrific reports I'd heard about a new Japanese market here in DC: Hana Market. I knew we had to make a field trip, and I figured we'd figure out what to do once we did. As we were all standing in the tiny, crowded dragon's cave of riches that constitutes Hana Market, oogling all the goodies and trying to not buy it all (which was made significantly easier by the fact that Chef Spouse and The Executive Committee had confiscated mine and Mad Kitchen Scientist's wallets, and no, I am not joking), it quickly became apparent: sushi!

After a brief detour to the Maine Avenue fish market, we returned home with this:

It's an absurdity of Japanese goodness!
We cracked into the Japanese snacks - sriracha peas, something we dubbed "Japanese Chex Mix" (only WAY more delicious), my very favorite salty seaweed snacks, seasoned baby octopus, and various delicately-flavored jellies - and started planning.

I should mention that we've made sushi before, the year our New Year's Eve theme was rolled items. The Executive Committee and Mad Kitchen Scientist traditionally throw a big New Year's Eve party, and Chef Spouse and I go over early in the day to help them prep. We usually have some sort of obscure theme, and that year, Chef Spouse and I cranked out a shitload of passable but far from transcendent veg maki. We clearly needed to make another run at this.

Step one: make sushi rice.

Step two: make dashi.

Step three: cut up all the gorgeous veg we bought: napa cabbage, daikon radish, green onions, cucumbers, avocado

Step four: cocktails! Chef Spouse came up with something we dubbed the Lychee Ricky-san

2 parts gin
1 part lychee juice  (drained from the canned lychees)
1 part simple syrup
1 part yuzu juice
1 lychee nut

Chef Spouse also played around with using a ponzu sauce we'd found (light in color and more citrus/vinegar than soy) in the drinks, but couldn't quite get the drink to balance.

I also prepped the lovely Japanese eggplants we'd purchased for this application to which I added some tofu and made with the dashi broth, not water and dashi bouillon (what do I look like, an amateur?), and, when I finished up the leftovers for lunch today, sriracha, because EVERYTHING is better with rooster sauce.

While we were waiting for the rice to cool so we could pour over the vinegar and sugar sauce, we decided we needed some miso soup. Mad Kitchen Scientist whipped up:

Our dashi broth
White miso
Steamed shrimp
Fresh tofu from the market
A little shredded napa, green onions, and daikon
A little soy sauce

Then, just before serving, each bowl got a quail egg cracked in. Yes, Hana had those too. Told you it was a dragon's cave of riches.

Thus fortified, we were ready to roll some sushi. We tried:
  • Yummy Teriyaki fish we found at the market (maybe sardines? unclear, but FULL of umami) and cucumber
  • Crab, avocado, and carrot
  • Salmon with shredded daikon we'd lightly pickled in the leftover octopus marinade
  • Shrimp, avocado, and matchstick daikon

We then took another brief break to enjoy the sushi and the lovely day. Lesson: it's hard to roll the sushi tightly enough for it to stay together without squashing it, although I definitely did better this time than that New Year's party.

We had also purchased two kinds of prepared wasabi, and a chunk of fresh wasabi root. Revelation #1: fresh wasabi is WORLDS better than the prepared stuff. No contest. It was amazing. It's pricey, but totally worth it if you can find it. The flavor is spicy rather than just hot, subtle and earthy. Wowza.

Then it was time to make nigiri. I formed the rice pillows, and Chef Spouse cut the fish (tuna, salmon, and halibut). Slicing it thinly enough proved to be a bit challenging. Mad Kitchen Scientist also opened some of the clams and slid them, raw, onto the rice pillows and dusted them with a little furikake.

One thing that Chef Spouse noted was that, while the fish we'd gotten was beautiful and fresh and looked and smelled great, somehow, the fish you get a good sushi joints seemed move flavorful. Damn restaurants. Bogarting all the best stuff.

 By this point, it was getting close to the start of the US/Portugal World Cup match, so we made a "festival" (Mad Kitchen Scientist's term) of sushi to eat while watching the match.

This lab was more about trying to improve technique than labbing per se, and I definitely feel more comfortable handling the sushi rice at this point, and Chef Spouse definitely got better at cutting the fish as he went. As Mad Kitchen Scientist observed, perhaps the most useful lesson to take away from this (other than the sheer awesomeness of Hana Market) is that the best way to learn a cuisine might be to find a market that's an authentic source, go buy a bunch of stuff, and commit yourself to working with those ingredients for at least a week, forcing you to think outside the (bento) box a bit.

01 June 2014

Easy Chocolate Truffles

Yesterday, we learned how to make truffles.

Don't get me wrong - Chef Spouse already knows how to make truffles.

He makes amazingly delicious truffles from a super-secret recipe that was given to him in STRICT confidence and with several conditions on the serving thereof for purposes of, and I quote: "sexual blackmail."

They rock.

They're also a bitch to make - time consuming, many ingredients, and quite finicky about precise temperatures and handling.

We were dining with our friend Chef Terry recently. He brought truffles for dessert, and he and Chef Spouse got chatting about making them. Turns out, Chef Terry knows an easier way. So we gathered yesterday for him to show us.

Chef Terry's truffles use precisely three ingredients:

220 g. of heavy cream
283 g. of 60% cacao Ghiradelli chocolate chips (plus more to enrobe your truffles)
About 1 Tbsp. of your flavoring agent (which in our case was amaretto)

Heat the heavy cream on the stove in a heavy bottomed sauce pan until it just starts to bubble, like so:

Remove it from the heat, pour your 283 g. of chocolate chips into a glass bowl, then pour over just enough of the warm cream to cover, thusly:

Let it sit for about 30 seconds to start the melting process, then whisk gently in one direction only and drizzle in the rest of the cream SLOWLY. All this "gently" and "slowly" business is to keep you from splattering melted chocolate and cream all over yourself and your kitchen. Unless, you know, that's your thing.

Then add your flavoring agent and whisk in. It should look like this when you're done:

"Hey!" you might say. "That looks just like ganache!" That's because it is. And at this point, if you happen to have a cake standing by and have changed you mind about making truffles, you can pour your ganache over your cake and be on your merry way.

Let's assume, though, that you want to continue your truffle adventure (or you have no un-iced cake handy). The next step is to cover your ganache tightly with plastic wrap and let it rest. Get the plastic wrap right down on the chocolate - you're trying to create an air-tight seal. Now comes the hard part: let the ganache rest at room temperature for at least 6 hours, preferably more like 24. The longer you wait, the easier the mixture will be to handle.

To form your truffles, you have two options: if you let the ganache rest more like 6 hours, you'll pipe them. If you let the ganache rest more like 24 hours, you'll scoop them.

Either way, you then want to let them set up for a few hours before enrobing them. You can shorten that by popping them in the fridge, but even then, they need at least an hour.

To enrobe, pour more of your 60% cacao chips into a glass bowl and microwave them for about 30 seconds. Stir gently, then hit them again for another 20 seconds or so. Stir gently, and test the temperature with an actual candy thermometer. You're aiming for about 101 degrees. You're tempering your chocolate (which Serious Eats explains really well, if you're curious). Short version: it's all about crystals. Once the chocolate is at the right temperature to do the right things to the crystalline structure of the cocoa butter in the chocolate, you'll be able to cover your truffles with a coating that will turn shiny and make them relatively shelf-stable.

The way you do it is pretty simple, but also kind of messy. You need chocolate on your hands, and then you drop the truffle center into the bowl, and gently toss it between your chocolate-covered hands to fully coat it. Wear gloves.

Then simply deposit them on your parchment-paper lined cookie sheet until the chocolate sets up and enjoy!

Oh - and all that "extra" chocolate that you drip onto the parchment paper in the process of doing this? Basis for your next batch of truffle centers.

07 April 2014

Food Lab 28: Pate

OK, it's not like Chef Spouse and The Mad Kitchen Scientist don't make pate regularly. In fact we recently had a discussion with some friends about what is the appropriate quantity of poultry to purchase in one go, to which we all replied: "Two (or three)." The reason? That gives you enough legs for confit, enough breasts for several dinners, bones for stock, and livers for pate.

But there's pate, and then there's PATE. The official Platonic form of pate, at least currently, is a truffle duck liver pate we get from the cranky cheese guy at Eastern Market. That was our model, our ideal, our goal to strive for.

We were joined by two new Food Labbers, the lovely couple who invited us to Thanksgiving in Catawba, Ohio, last fall: Dr. Fruit Bat and the International Dilettante. Who brought some delicious local apples and microgreens (had to have something to cut all that rich liver), and a shit-ton of really excellent wine.

Our base was:

1/2 lb. of livers (some duck, some chicken, some mixed)
1/2 c. diced shallots
1 1/2 tsp. minced garlic
1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp. pink peppercorns
1/8 tsp. white peppercorns
6 juniper berries
2 allspice berries

All sauteed in about 1 Tbsp. butter, then deglazed with either 1/4 c. cognac or 1/4 c. marsala. (That didn't really seem to make a major difference in the taste, though.)

We also labbed velvet-smooth, food processed then pressed through a Chinois, versus a more country-style, that was just food processed.

The smooth versions, one chicken and one duck, both with the marsala, were spiced with thyme, additional pink peppercorn, clove, caramelized onions, and then we tested salt versus anchovy paste. The clove was a little strong, and I think the anchovy paste was better, although I don't know if anyone else agrees. But the smoothness? Awesome. And a lot of work:

The chunky versions, one chicken and one duck, both with cognac, were spiced thusly. Version one had pink peppercorn, ground chipotle, ground brown mustard seeds, a little additional juniper, some Vietnamese cinnamon, and salt. Version two had fresh thyme, salt and pepper, caramelized onions, and truffle oil. Truffle oil is a DEFINITE yes. Wowza. Also, I tried using a food mill to get a smoother texture, which actually worked pretty well and was WAY less work.

We also had some duck/chicken mixed livers, and that's where we went a little crazy with the spicing:
  • Version one: parsley, chili powder, salt, caramelized onions, sriracha- YES
  • Version two: bacon, white and pink peppercorn, allspice, garlic, cloves, truffle oil, honey - eh
  • Version three: egg yolk, Calvados, Chinese five spice powder - O.M.G. YES!
Before you start on me, yes, I know there are no quantities. It's to taste, kids.

And yes, I am aware that we are already up to seven varieties of pate.

The Executive Committee also set us up with mushroom pates. Because her job is to remind us to eat our vegetables, and when I was a vegetarian in grad school years ago, one of my favorite dishes at one of my favorite restaurants in town was, in fact, mushroom pate. So we went two directions: Tres Mushroom and Walnut Pate and Hazelnut and Wild Mushroom Pate (NY Times recipe).

The Tres Mushrooms was an Executive Committee original, which she adapted specially for us:

1 cup toasted walnuts
1/2 cup minced shallots
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/4 pound Shiitake mushrooms, chopped
1/4 pound Crimini mushrooms, chopped
1/4 pound Portobello mushrooms, chopped
1 Tablespoon chopped garlic
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
2 Tablespoons white wine
1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon Truffle oil

In a large sauté pan, melt ½ cup butter over medium heat and add shallots, cooking them until they are translucent. Add chopped mushrooms, garlic, parsley, thyme, salt, and pepper. Stir often. When mushrooms browned, add white wine. Continue to sauté until most of the liquid has evaporated.

Combine toasted walnuts, olive oil, and truffle oil in a blender or food processor until forms a paste. Add cooked mushrooms and blend to desired texture. Add extra salt to taste, mix again.

We left one alone, added chopped pistachios to one and chopped capers to another. CAPERS. YUM.

To quote The Executive Committee on the hazelnut and wild mushroom version:
It was good, but wild mushrooms got lost (had mix of dried morels, chantrelles, lobster, and porcinis reconstituted to comprise 3/4 pound, rest of "wild" filled out by adding extra fresh crimini). Recipe filled 3 ramekins, and we added cream to one, truffle oil to another and Chinese five spice to the third. The additions were tasty. Lessons on this recipe were that 1) reserve morels and chantrelles for fancy sauces where they will not be overwhelmed (duh), 2) fresh portobello in the "wild" mix could offer more meatiness, 3) might substitute olive oil and/or hazelnut oil for melted butter,and 4) make sure salt to taste.
And further:
Both mushroom pates had enough seductive umami flavor that they were easy to devour. Vegetarians will need to throw some elbows to get any.
She's not wrong.

If you're keeping track, that's an additional six varieties of pate.

Which makes thirteen all together. Which is lucky, of course, but also a LOT of pate. Good thing we had some veg, or we might've all keeled over immediately.

What did we drink? Lots of wine - I might've already mentioned that - and Fernet Me Nots, which The Mad Kitchen Scientist found for us, having Fernet and knowing my fondness for bitter drinks:

4 parts delish kitchen gin (that he and The Executive Committee had made special for Lab)
2 parts sweet vermouth
1 part Fernet Branca
Orange twist

It was OK, but with the addition of some Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate bitters (and, in my case, also some Angostura), it was outstanding.

And I think that the bitterness really played well with the richness of the liver. Then again, I think bitter drinks go with pretty much everything, so I may not be 100% reliable on this. 

04 March 2014

Food Lab 27: Roux

Happy Fat Tuesday, y'all!

Your Food Labbers gathered on Sunday for our latest lab adventure. Mad Kitchen Scientist, the Executive Committee, Chef Spouse and I were joined by two new Labbers: Eggman and Die Künstlerwranglerin. With Mardi Gras right around the corner, we decided it was time to tackle something that's been on the "to lab" list for some time: roux.

Roux is a foundational technique of both French cooking and Cajun cooking. As the saying goes:

Roux is merely flour cooked in an equal amount of fat. It provides thickening to a variety of dishes ranging from the classic (espagnole sauce, béchamel sauce, and more on that later) to the down-home (gumbo).

Sounds simple.

Ah! But what flour? What fat? How dark? Fast or slow? And, perhaps the most important question one has to answer in order to make a real Cajun (dark) roux: what's the difference between burning and burnt?

We set out to answer all of those things.

We had a variety of fats to work with: butter, clarified butter, various vegetable oils, duck fat, bacon fat, lamb fat. We also had our standby King Arthur unbleached white all purpose flour, plus corn meal and pumpkin flour. And we wanted to work with fast and slow stovetop roux, as well as Alton Brown's oven roux technique.

Obviously, we were not going to make 12 varieties of gumbo, not least of which because you really need to wait until the next day to eat your gumbo, and that was not going to happen.

First Chef Spouse made us a round of his fantastic Ramos gin fizzes, to facilitate planning our order of operations. We decided that our first test would to make three roux on the stovetop, regular flour and butter, going light, caramel, and dark, and then turning those into béchamel to top roasted beets, roasted Belgian endives wrapped in proscuitto, and pearl onions sauteed in butter.

Eggman and The Executive Committee got to work processing the beets, endives, and onions. Mad Kitchen Scientist had also brought along three whole ducks (which is the quantity of ducks one buys when buying duck), so he and Die Künstlerwranglerin got to work disassembling them so we could confit the legs and make duck liver pate.

In the meantime, I was mid-way through making a King Cake. Die Künstlerwranglerin wanted to see how it's done, and I had started it earlier in the morning so it would be done in time for us to enjoy some later in the afternoon.

In that first round, we learned that it's pretty hard to make a dark roux with unclarified butter on the stovetop, as the milk solids tend to burn and get very bitter. Needless to say, the béchamel we tried to make with it did NOT taste good. Fortunately, I'd had the foresight to start a butter-based oven roux while everyone was busy chopping and whisking:

Also fortunately, we were left with completely serviceable caramel and light roux based béchamel for our onions, endives, and beets. Traditionally, béchamel is made with a very light roux, since it's a white sauce. Thing is, I've always thought that leaves it tasting of raw flour. Not appealing. If you're not concerned about maintaining that pure white color, our advice is to go for a caramel roux, with an egg yolk added at the end. That is some tasty, tasty béchamel, as we can attest, since we took a break to eat the béchamel-topped beets, onions, and proscuitto-wrapped endives.

Our next test was to look at other fats and other flours. We decided to make four dark roux: corn meal in bacon fat, pumpkin flour in duck fat, regular flour in duck fat, and regular flour in bacon fat. Whichever one(s) turned out would become étouffée later in the day.

Corn meal does not make a good roux. We're not sure if it's the lack of gluten, or the fact that it's coarser than flour, or what, but it ended up looking like the sand at the edge of the water at the beach, right at the tideline.

The pumpkin flour, on the other hand, was a very pleasant surprise. It made a really nice roux. So maybe it has nothing to do with the gluten content. Hmmm. We ended up combining it with the butter-based oven roux and using it as the base for duck confit and andouille étouffée that was the BOMB DIGGITY.

We also discovered that either duck or bacon fat make for a much better dark roux base, even if you're going slow on the stovetop, but particularly if you're using the fast roux technique.

What is the fast roux technique? Highest heat possible, and keep that flour moving at ALL times! If you're going to attempt the fast version of dark roux, you must roll your sleeves down and wear something like this on your hands. Cajun napalm is no joke if you get it on your skin, and the fast roux technique increases the chances that's going to happen dramatically.

The regular flour roux got combined for shrimp and andouille étouffée that was also quite good, but not as good as the duck confit version (quelle suprise!).

Chef Spouse usually makes étouffée with a relatively light roux, and I think the dark roux was a revelation. It doesn't offer as much thickening, of course, but I think it brings a lot more flavor to the party.

So what did we drink? In addition to the Ramos gin fizzes, we made sazeracs with various bitters, including The Eggman's gift for the house of Bitter Truth Creole bitters, which, as far as we can tell, were specifically made for sazeracs. Yep, *that* good. He had also brought some lavender honey simple syrup that we played with, too, as well as a small sample pack of unusual bitters, including chocolate and cardamon, which made their way into manhattans. Since we had a variety of absinthes, including a violently green Eastern European version The Eggman brought along with some Fee Brothers rock candy simple syrup, we also had to make an absinthe frappe.

The point of the absinthe frappe, a drink I happen to adore, is to get all the benefits of an absinthe fountain without actually having an absinthe fountain (or, if you have one, going through the trouble of setting it up and waiting). It's a shortcut to getting the absinthe diluted, sweetened, and cold. I endorse this technique.

Oh - and, of course, King Cake, beautifully decorated by The Executive Committee and Die Künstlerwranglerin.

Yeah, you right!

13 February 2014

Pretty Damn Good Chocolate Chip Cookies

About a month ago, my pops sent me a link to a recipe he found online promising the "perfect"
chocolate chip cookies.

And I made them, and they were good, don't get me wrong.

But this is Food Lab, goddamnit. "They were good" doesn't cut it. Drop and give me 20, soldier!

I thought the other cookies were too sweet. I liked going heavier on the brown sugar than the white for a nice moist cookie with a deeper flavor, but 1 1/2 c.  sugar total is too much, particularly with 12 oz. of semisweet chips AND 8 oz. bittersweet.

I also thought they were too large. In the "traditional" Toll House recipe, you're putting down about 1/4-1/2 oz. per cookie. "Perfect" tells you to make each cookie 2 oz. That's 1/4 c. batter. That's not a cookie - it's a dinner plate with chocolate chips in it.

I also followed the mixing directions to the letter, which was a mistake. I ended up with a bunch of unincorporated dry stuff at the bottom of the bowl. And kosher salt was a mistake, too - the grains are too big - and the recipe called for too little (also contributing to the "too sweet" problem).

So I decided to tweak the recipe.

1 c. unsalted butter at cool room temperature
2/3 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. white sugar
1 tsp. sea salt 
2 tsp. vanilla
2 large eggs
1 tsp. baking soda
2 c. flour
16 oz. (ish) of bittersweet chocolate chips (I didn't measure precisely - I had a full bag and a partial bag that was, I think, about 1/2 full, which would technically be 18 oz. of chips)
1 c. pecans, finely chopped (which you can replace with walnuts or skip entirely if you don't like nuts)

Preheat your oven to 375 F. 

Cream the butter, sugars, salt, and vanilla (you can do it by hand but it's a hell of a lot easier to do it in your stand mixer). The creamed mixture will not be as fluffy or light in color as normal because of the higher amount of brown sugar, but that's OK - don't worry!

Add the eggs and beat until they're fully incorporated, then add the baking soda.

With the mixer on low speed (so flour doesn't fly all over the place), add the flour 1/2 c. at a time, stopping to scrape up the bottom, scrape down the sides, and scrape out the paddle periodically. Mix until it's all fully incorporated.

Toss in your chips and nuts, and mix on low speed until fully incorporated. Make sure the arm of your mixer is locked, or all those chips and nuts will make it buck. Alternatively, you can take the batter off the mixer first and stir in the chips and nuts by hand.

Drop your cookie batter by rounded tablespoons onto your favorite cookie sheet. You're looking for about 1 oz. batter per cookie. It's up to you whether you grease or not, parchment paper or not, Silpat or not, or just go au naturel. I've tried it with the Silpat and bare and not noticed a significant difference.

Bake for about 9 minutes. The original recipe is correct - you need to pull them out when they're getting a little brown and crispy at the edges but are still underdone in the middle. Let them rest on the hot cookie sheet for about a minute to firm up, then remove them to racks to cool.

Tell me those aren't gorgeous!

Next time, I think I'm going to try forming them into balls and refrigerating them before baking, like I do with most of my other butter-based cookies. I think it will help them maintain their shape better in the oven.

28 January 2014

Food Lab 26: Mole

Every year for our Super Bowl party, Chef Spouse creates a Tex-Mex extravaganza (with the assistance of Made Kitchen Scientist, The Executive Committee, and me). Every year for the past few years, the Tex-Mex extravaganza has been getting more complex. We now make all our own tortillas (corn and flour of course) to wrap around Chef Spouse's delicious fajita fillings and homemade guacamole. We are likely to add homemade salsa this year, too, and we have talked about doing all the tortilla chips from scratch, since we have a deep fryer.

While we were prepping this year's New Year's Eve feast, we were chatting with MKS and TEC about what might add to the Super Bowl deliciousness, and we arrived on mole. Mad Kitchen Scientist has made mole before, but Chef Spouse and I have not. Hence, a Food Lab.

MKS posited that, if we were going to do this right, we would have to start the Lab with a field trip to the legendary Penzey's Spices, since we were going to need a wide variety of dried chiles and interesting spices. To date, Chef Spouse and I have been, well, resistant is not really the word. Slow to get on the Penzey's train, mostly out of fear for our bank account. Turns out, that fear was well founded. We got chiles, for sure, but Chef Spouse and I also dropped over $100 on

In case you can't see it all, that basket contains:
  • Star anise
  • Crystalized ginger bits (pre-chopped to perfect baking size)
  • Red chile flakes
  • Brown mustard seeds (Chef Spouse has been doing a lot of Indian cooking lately and could only find yellow at the local megamart)
  • Juniper berries
  • Vietnamese cinnamon (SOOOO spicy!)
  • Chinese cinnamon (sweet, rich, and warm)
  • Galangal (for Thai cooking, and also hard to find at the local megamart)
  • Cumin seed (NOT ground, also useful in Indian food and hard to find)
  • Green cardamon seeds (GORGEOUS and impossible to pass up)
  • Ceylon whole cloves (bright and fresh)
  • Madagascar whole cloves(darker and richer)
  • Smoked paprika
  • Sumac
  • a GIANT bottle of high quality Mexican vanilla extract (hey, it's not like it goes bad)
It was a bit of a frenzy, and required reorganization of our spice storage when we got home.

Then, when we got back to Chez Executive Committee, Chef Spouse played with Mad Kitchen Scientist's new toy from Santa. We already have four different knife sharpening tools/systems, and we live less than one mile from a butcher who can professionally sharpen your knives in 24 hours or less for, like, $3 a knife. But apparently, we need another knife sharpening tool in the house. Of course, Chef Spouse is going to have to get the fancier, more expensive kind because he has both German and Japanese knives, which sharpen at different angles. Sigh.

We also parboiled five pounds of chicken thighs so we'd have something to eat all this mole on (and which provided a few quarts of a very light chicken broth that turned out to be quite helpful).

Anyway, we eventually started work on the mole, guided by MKS's house recipe, Rick Bayless, and Diana Kennedy (who, if you weren't already aware, apparently hate each other, which led to much trash talking about "team Bayless" and "team Kennedy").

I quote Rick on mole (thus revealing my team preference):
...when you say mole poblano, non-natives immediately think "chocolate chicken," while natives' mouths water to visions of a dark, complex sauce made of dried chiles, nuts, seeds, flavorings, vegetables, spices, and, yes, a bit of chocolate. 
Whereas Diana Kennedy insists that mole does NOT include chocolate.

From what we could determine, basic mole consists of chiles, nuts, allium, some sort of fat (traditionally lard), spices, and a binder (generally stale tortillas). It may, but does not have to, include fruit, tomatoes, and/or chocolate.

So after some debate and comparing of recipes, we decided to lab four varieties:
  • Dried chiles, no chocolate
  • Dried chiles with 2 TBP cocoa powder
  • Dried chiles with 2 oz. chopped 60% cacao bar chocolate
  • Fresh chiles only, which also got 2 oz. of the bar chocolate
For each of the three dried chile varieties, we used:
  • A little more than 1 chipotle (which are jalapenos that have been allowed to ripen to red before being dried, and were the hottest of the four)
  • 5 cascabels (sweet and vegetal)
  • 8 guajillos (smoky and mild)
  • 3-4 anchos (meaty, and, incidentally, MKS's favorites)
If you're doing the math at home, that's four chipotles, 15 cascabels, 24 guajillos, and 11 anchos, so 54 chiles total, all of which had to be stemmed, seeded, de-veined, and torn or cut into small pieces before being cooked briefly in lard and then reconstituted in chicken broth. Who processed all those chiles? Yours truly, which took about an hour and a half.

(According to both Bayless and Kennedy, mulato chiles are traditional, and are supposed to be "widely available." Maybe in Texas and California, but we had NO luck locating any in the DMV.)

Those three versions also got 1/2 c. of pulverized, dry-toasted almonds each as their nut component.

The fresh chile version used four jalapenos and six anaheims, all of which we roasted in the oven then peeled, seeded, and de-veined before using. The fresh version also got 3/4 c. pepitas (roasted pumpkin seeds) for its nut component.

All the varieties also got the following:
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • ½ tsp anise seeds, toasted
  • ½ tsp coriander seeds, toasted
  • 3 TBSP sesame seeds, toasted
  • ½ tsp mixed seeds from the dried chiles
  • 3 oz. tomato paste
  • 4 cloves, ground
  • 1 whole onion and 1 clove garlic, chopped and browned in lard
  • 2 cloves raw garlic, chopped
  • ¼ c. mixed brown and golden raisins
  • 2 corn tortillas (which, of course, we made fresh and then staled-out in the oven)
We had all that prepped and standing by in four bowls before we started cooking. For each of the three dried chile batches, first, we stick-blended the dried, reconstituted chiles in their chicken broth, then poured that into a Dutch oven to brown in lard before adding that list of ingredients above plus about 1/2 c. homemade smoked chicken stock (that MKS just happened to have on hand), whirring with the stick blender again, then simmering for about 30 minutes, adding the parboiled chicken thighs, and simmering an additional 30 minutes. The only difference with the fresh chile version is that we just put the above ingredients and the roasted chiles in the Dutch oven together with the last of the chicken broth and more like 1 c.  of the homemade smoked chicken stock, then went through the same whirring, simmering, chicken, more simmering process as above.

When the chicken was done, we pulled it out, shredded it, and served each with a bowl of its sauce on the side, thusly:

All together, the process took more than five hours, which is actually pretty fast considering that Rick Bayless opines that it takes multiple days to make a really good mole.

Both Chef Spouse and The Executive Committee found the fresh variety too hot, although, chile-head that I am, it was my favorite. I liked the brightness of no chocolate variety as well, finding both the chocolate varieties a little too rich. Surprisingly, the cocoa variety had a smoother mouth-feel than the bar chocolate variety. But I wouldn't, as the saying goes, kick any of them out of bed for eating crackers.

"But was there a drinks lab?" you ask. Of course! Aside from wine with the mole, we also enjoyed two tasty cocktails.

Mad Kitchen Scientist made us delish fresh mango ginger margaritas to start the day. He muddled 1 mango, 2 limes, and a thumb joint-sized piece of fresh ginger, chopped fine, then used that as the base for drinks, each of which were 1 part Tequila, 1/2 part Cointreau, and 1/4 part agave nectar.

Chef Spouse responded with a yet-to-be-named pomegranate drink, consisting of 1 part simple syrup, 1 part lemon juice, 2 parts Aperol, 3 parts gin, and 3 parts 100% pomegranate juice. I, of course, didn't find it bitter enough and added orange bitters to mine.

So was it worth the time and effort? Absolutely, because each recipe makes a lot of mole, which, according to Mad Kitchen Scientist, freezes really well. We had quite a bit of the chicken left, too, which is going to show up at the Super Bowl party as filling for a fresh corn tortilla taquito appetizer.

01 January 2014

Food Lab: Update

Happy New Year, Foodies!

Checking in on your valiant Food Labbers, although we haven't done a formal lab since September, we have all been busy with food and non-food activities.

As usual, of course, it gets tougher to schedule Labs in the fall due to one of my other leisure activities, and things were further complicated this fall by Labbers traveling domestically and internationally and changing jobs and looking for jobs and several house renovation projects and ANOTHER one of my leisure activities, among other things.

Chef Spouse and I did join Mad Kitchen Scientist, The Executive Committee, and some of their friends at the family homestead in Catawba, OH Thanksgiving week. We did a LOT of cooking, and sort of half of a lab looking at making aspics, but Chef Spouse and I had to leave before that finished up, and we mostly forgot to take any pictures, which makes things a little tough to write about.

What I learned:
  • REALLY good meat is REALLY cheap in Ohio. We got a huge, beautiful beef tenderloin (yes, the WHOLE tenderloin) for $30. Not joking.
  • Pressure cookers are awesome for making stock - they speed up the process and extract a LOT more gelatinous goodness.
  • If you feed and use your sourdough starter to bake bread daily, you stop needing any sort of recipe pretty much immediately. Now I just make bread.
  • Those old-fashioned pizzelle irons that require you to cook the pizzelles over a gas burner are a BITCH to use, but remind everyone how delicious homemade pizzelles. Fortunately, Santa was reminded, too, and brought me one of these.
  • Chef Spouse is the cocktail MASTER (I already knew that, but he worked his magic for us nightly to good effect, including using hibiscus blossoms we found at the local market).
  • Aperol is YUMMY.
  • Brining a turkey is not that hard as long as you have a spare cooler you can use.
  • 8 people need at least 10 pies (we did have two each of pumpkin and pecan).
  • DO NOT attempt to chop the leeks before you've had your coffee. You may lose a bit of the end of your thumb. Which hurts like HELL but does get you out of helping with the cleanup.
  • A snug house, two happy dogs, hot buttered rum, and conversation with good friends around the fire is an EXCELLENT way to spend an evening.
We've had some great foodie moments since then, too, including the annual Old Ebbitt Grill oyster riot, an afternoon teaching a group of friends that will be traveling to Jamaica with us in the spring how to make pasta from scratch, meals at some great new restaurants in the DMV, attending the annual Feast of the Seven Fishes Italian (of course) friends of ours put together, and our traditional New Year's Eve helping Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee prep and then joining a bunch of their other friends for their fantastic house party featuring our delicious food and Mad Kitchen Scientist's top-quality homebrews.

Food Lab will return soon now that the 2013 NFL season is winding down. In the meantime, happy New Year to you and all your loved ones. I wish you a 2014 full of amazing food, fun, laughter, love, learning, and good friends - in other words, that you'll have a Food Lab kind of year!

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